Last week was the anniversary of the Trent Affair, one of the most interesting scandals in the U.S. Civil War. It began in 1861 when the U.S. Navy illegally intercepted and boarded a British mail ship—in contravention of diplomatic protocol—capturing two Confederate diplomats as “contraband of war”. It was revealed that the envoys were bound for the U.K. and France to seek diplomatic recognition and possibly financial and military support.
As during the American War of Independence, the Confederate States of America (CSA) recognized the value of global legitimacy—and the subsequent aid it could bring—for strengthening their cause both ideologically and practically. Even one year into the war, the Confederates realized that ensuring independence against the more established and powerful Union would likely rest on foreign support—hence their secret mission to get the two leading powers of the day to back them.
Instead, they almost unwittingly caused the next best thing for their interests: another war between the U.K. and the U.S. American public opinion supported the capture of the diplomats and rallied against the British for perceived complicity. The British public disapproved of the violation of their neutrality and international law and viewed the Navy’s actions as an insult to national honor. Both countries clamored for war, with the British demanding an apology and the release of the prisoners; they even took steps to strengthen their military in Canada. The Confederates hoped that the tensions would, at the very least, rapture the “special relationship” between American and Britain, if not boil into war and diplomatic recognition of the CSA.
Unfortunately for them, Abraham Lincoln and his advisers were cool-headed and pragmatic; they recognized the very real risk of war with the U.K. and what a calamity a two-front conflict would be. This was far more important than saving diplomatic face. After several weeks, the crisis was finally resolved when the U.S. government released the two envoys and formally disavowed the actions of the Navy captain responsible—although without the formal apology the British demanded; for their part, they backed down from making this an absolute requirement, and settled for the resolution.
The two Confederate diplomats went on their way to Europe, albeit to no avail: the CSA never got the diplomatic recognition it craved, and that might very well have turned the war to their favor—after all, America’s securing of French recognition and support is what proved most decisive in guaranteeing its victory and subsequent independence.